Happy Spring from ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’-The Wind in the Willows

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This is one of my favorite passages from the Wind in the Willows where Rat and Mole meet the half human half god, Pan, Lord of the Wild Wood and Protector of Animals, while looking for a missing baby otter. For some reason it always reminds me of Spring, which is fitting for today. Happy Spring and Renewal of Life!

Rat and Mole are rowing their boat along a river searching frantically for Portly, the baby otter. They hear a faint piping sound drawing them forward as the forest around them begins to shimmer with a light illuminating everything around them. They moor their boat and climb onto shore.IMG_4514

“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered Rat. “Here in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him.” Mole’s muscles turned to water as he felt the Awe upon him. It was no panic or terror…but it was an awe that smote and held him, and without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.

…[Mole] raised his humble head; … and looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down in them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in the majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.

“Rat, are you afraid?”

“Afraid? Afraid of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of the birds that hailed the dawn.

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Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. Puffin Books (Penguin Classics), 1983, from the original, 1908. 120-126.

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

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This was a very depressing novel. Let’s just get that out of the way. Like another of Wharton’s New England novels Summer, which I read last year, she once again creates a character whose life has promise and potential, but bad choices made early on coupled with poverty and duty to family ruin any chance of freedom. Ethan Frome’s draining, joy-sucking life permeated every page.

Wharton creates a bit of mystery surrounding Ethan Frome in the opening pages. The unnamed narrator who arrives in town on business notes his somber countenance, “something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man,” yet he was only 52. The coach driver explained he has looked that way since ‘the smash-up.’ And with that, the strange, sad tale of Ethan Frome begins.

Frome is many years into a loveless marriage. He and his wife, Zeena, live in the Frome family home eking out a slim existence from soil that doesn’t yield much. He asked Zeena to marry him out of gratitude for helping him nurse his sick mother. Right after they marry her real or imagined ill health makes her unable to take care of the home, so she enlists the help of her young cousin, Mattie Silver, although it is soon clear she has no household skills.

Mattie’s youth and joy for life is Ethan’s one bright light and he begins to care for her deeply. When Zeena announces that her new doctor wants her to get a proper hired girl, because “I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house,” Ethan is devastated. Mattie will have to leave because they can’t afford to pay for two girls, although she has no family to take her in. Ethan spends days frantically looking for a way to run off with Mattie, until he realizes its futility. The day he takes Mattie to the train station he stops to take her sledding. Both are distraught over their impending separation admitting they cannot live apart and make a pact to end their pain by sledding into a tree. They are severely injured, but both live. Ethan is left with a limp and a scarred forehead, but Mattie sustains a spinal injury that leaves her permanently disabled.

The action skips to the present when the narrator, who has only heard bits and pieces of this story is invited by Ethan to stay the night during a snow storm. When the front door is opened he hears more than one voice coming from the kitchen. He is shocked to walk in on both Zeena and Mattie sitting around the kitchen table.

When he goes back to his boarding house, run by a childhood friend of Ethan’s she explains that yes, after the accident, Zeena took Mattie back and nursed her as best she could and without any family to return to the three have lived together for 24 years. She tells him, “If she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Though the story is terribly tragic I admire Wharton’s writing. She is not sentimental or overly emotional, but matter of fact. The event happens or the choice sets in motion tragic consequences, the character accepts his or her fate and makes new choices and with them we move on. As in real life we have to get on with whatever hand we are dealt and this is how Wharton writes.

Except that I found it hard to just let go of Ethan’s fate. Is it too much to ask to give him a little happiness after having to leave college to come back home to care for his father, then his mother, then his wife and finally both his wife and unrequited lover? Couldn’t Wharton give him a little better financial situation or let his wife die young or…something?

However, like Charity, the main character in Summer, who similarly had to pit personal fulfillment against duty, what the reader finds here is reality. Both Ethan and Charity made foolish choices the first time they fell in love, which left them with life-altering consequences they could never break away from. And maybe that is the moral or the cautionary tale here; what you do when young comes back to haunt you. The whole trajectory of your life can change in an instant, so make good choices!

Right.

Try telling that to any young person in love!
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My edition and plot summary.
Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome and Selected Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Originally published in 1911.

Challenges: Classic Club List and Mount TBR

Amy’s Pickled Limes-Little Women

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Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else….If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I’ve had ever so many but haven’t returned them, and I ought, for they are debts of honor, you know.”

I have always wanted to go back and revisit this episode, because it is intriguing to think of limes as a social metaphor for status and acceptance: Not only are you one of us, but one of my favored, because I bestow this pickled lime upon you. I assumed it was historically accurate, but wondered where and how limes came to New England in the middle of the 19th century? And most especially, how they ended up as a schoolyard status symbol.

For Amy and her classmates, it wasn’t just the giving of limes, but the importance of giving back to the girls who gave the pickled limes first. This point cannot, to these school girls, be overstated.

The next day Amy was rather late at school; but could not resist the temptation of displaying, with pardonable pride, a moist brown-paper parcel…During the next few minutes the rumor that Amy March had got twenty-four delicious limes…and was going to treat circulated through her “set”…Katy Brown invited her to her next party on the spot; Mary Kingsley insisted on lending her her watch till recess….

Unfortunately, her stash is discovered by the teacher, who has forbidden them in the classroom and Amy is forced to throw them out the window.

Linda Zeidrich in her book, The Joy of Pickling, tackles Amy’s limes in a brief history. She describes their availability and low cost at a typical neighborhood store where they were sold on the counter for a penny each. “Kids chewed, sucked, and traded amylines2pickled limes at school (and not just at recess) for decades, making the limes the perennial bane of New England schoolteachers.” Doctors thought this was an unnatural habit, but parents didn’t seem to be bothered and were content to let their children indulge. Interesting that at some point science recognized the benefits of citrus for health.

While it was true that some limes were grown in the United States, most came from the West Indies where they were packed in sea water or brine and shipped in barrels to ports in the Northeast, especially to Boston where they were the most popular. Zeidrich makes the ironic point that the limes of Louisa May Alcott’s schoolgirls were tied to the same slave labor in the Caribbean that sent Mr. March to fight against slavery in the United States. It always helps to know the origin of things when possible….

The cost per lime was so low because they were not classified as fresh fruit, which had a much higher tariff. Occasionally Congress tried to classify them with fresh fruit which brought protests. When Boston importer, William Brexnax, argued for separate classifications before the Ways and Means Committee of the Congress of the United States in 1909, he did so on the basis that the consumers of pickled limes were women and children from a small area of the country, the small consumption of which posed no commercial threat to fresh limes. You can read the full argument below.

GodeysDo-it-yourself pickled limes seem easy enough and while I found some period recipes this one from a 1854 issue of Godey’s Ladies Book, might have been close to what Amy and her friends ate.

“The dry and fresh-gathered fruits are put into strong, wide-mouthed glass bottles, carefully corked, and luted with a cement of lime and soft cheese, and bound down with wire. The bottles are then inclosed (sp) separately in canvas bags, and put into a kettle of water, which is gradually heated until it boils; the bottles are kept in this condition until the fruits are boiled in their own juice. The whole is then left to cool; after which the bottles are examined separately, and put away for store.”

Some recipes added salt and none I found were sweet, so it seems children ate them tart or sour.

I still don’t know why these pickled limes were traded by children whose later counterparts traded baseball cards or little key chains as we did at my school or whatever children are trading for status now. I suppose their ease of acquisition and cheap cost had something to do with it.

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(Here is William F. Brexnax’s argument before the House Ways and Means Committee defending pickled limes against a fresh fruit tariff. Formatted by me for readability).


Hearings, Volume 20

By United States. 60th Congress. 2d session., 1908-1909. House.

188 PICKLED LIMES Paragraph 559
WM F BREXNAX IMPORTER BOSTON MASS WISHES A SEPARATE CLASSIFICATION MADE FOR PICKLED LIMES 1 13 CENTRAL STREET

Boston January 26 1909 COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS Washington DC

GENTLEMEN In the revision of the tariff let me urge that the classification of pickled limes remain unchanged as this commodity has but a very limited sale and confined almost exclusively to a few New England states.

After limes are immersed in sea water for twenty four hours it causes such a physical change that they are of no commercial value whatever other than as a pickled lime because they can not be freshened out or used only for eating in their changed condition and in this form they are consumed mostly by women and children of this section of the country who have acquired the taste for them.

Under the Wilson bill they were charged as pickles at 30 per cent ad volorem and continued so under the present bill until the Board of General Appraisers decided to class them as limes at 1 cent per pound together with the water which surrounded the same which ruling was amended by the decision of the United States circuit court of appeals in my suit against the Government for refund of duties since which time they have come in under paragraph 559 and admitted free as fruits in brine not specially provided Tor

The business done in them is quite small and positively no protection is needed for the few limes grown in the United States as they never pickle them and if pickled limes should again be classified under the head of green fruit it would be putting a prohibition value upon them for they are usually sold for a cent each and when the retailers can not do this the business small as it is will be curtailed very materially.

It has been proven by the courts that there has under all tariffs been a distinction made between limes and pickled limes and I would ask that this decision remain unchanged. This merchandise is not commercially known as limes and therefore should have a distinct classification if it is to be designated in any way in the new list. No tariff that the Government ever issued has classified pickled limes so it can be seen that they have never been considered of sufficient importance to give them a place. But now that revision is under way the opportunity should be embraced to make provision for them and thereby avoid a mix up again with the general appraisers in determining the proper interpretation of the tariff and I present the subject at this time with that end in view I trust that our New Englanders may continue to eat the fruit as of old which will be the case unless the United States needs to increase the cost by a tariff for revenue only.

Yours truly WM F BRENNAN Importer TABIFIT HEARINGS 7755

 


Living in Mary Austin’s House, The Land of Little Rain (1903)

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Mary Austin’s Home, Independence, CA       California Historical Landmark No. 229

Weather does not happen. It is the visible manifestation of the Spirit moving itself in the void.

Mary Austin (1868-1934) is a southwest writer who wrote about the desert and mountain areas of the Sierra Nevada and the Death Valley region of California. The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays that first ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1903 and was subsequently published in book form. For Americans in the east and middle parts of the country, California at this time still evoked mystery and an Eden-like quality, but the desert was an unknown entity.

Austin brought interest to these regions by her lyrical and descriptive writing style (and an independent use of words and phrases to furrow an editor’s brow), not only of the land and animal inhabitants, but as an ally to the plight of the Shoshone and Paiute Indians who had been shut out and shoved around by the “progress” of the encroaching White population. She trekked through mountain passages, Spring-flowered valleys and scrubby foothills observing and finding connections among the nonhuman and human animals who populated the nooks and crannies of a place where only the hardy could survive.

 

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Bristlecone Pine, White Mountains, California. Known for their long lives.

 

She writes like John Muir personalizing the animals that she observes and brings to life what many people don’t see in the desert. And like Muir, who roamed the Sierras as well, she sees the nondenominational hand of Spirit that both animates and connects all the world. However, unlike Muir and the male dominated “nature” movement shouting to the wide world, her voice is for the local personal relationship with a particular piece of land.

Originally from Illinois, she moved west with her family after college. She married and had a daughter finding a base in the tiny town of Independence where she wandered throughout the desert foothills and mountain trails with Ruth strapped to her back in a device she learned from the Indians.

 

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Outside the Austin house front door.

 

I lived in her house for the summer many years ago when I came back to California after 5 years in Chicago. A friend owned her house and asked me to stay while she spent long trips backpacking and peak climbing throughout the Sierras. I had never spent much time in the desert let alone such a small town where there was a last street before the wilderness.

 

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Bighorn sheep let me take their picture!

 

As odd as it might seem, I didn’t read any of Mary Austin’s extensive work. Instead, I spent days wandering the foothills coming upon bleached cow bones, poking at the dirt for horned toads, discovering ancient Native petroglyphs etched in big stone rocks, sitting on granite boulders in the evening while the red-tailed hawks above me searched for dinner below, and watching the shadows change the color of the Sierras and the Inyo/Whites as the sun’s shadow passed over them from sun up to sun rise.

 

 

Petroglyphs on boulders saying something…?

 

After reading The Land of Little Rain over the weekend I was duly stunned by what this collection of essays brought up. It wasn’t just the memories of one of the best summers of my life, but why I love to be outside walking trails and keeping company with all of Nature’s creaturely inhabitants and how I am often opened to praise That which is bigger than myself.

 Austin eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico where she continued to write books, poems and plays.

Below are passages from The Land of Little Rain that particularly struck me. And incidentally, all the photos on this page are mine. Excuse the quality as they are digital photos taken from snapshots.

A communion of creatures—

Probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind. When the five coyotes that range the Tejon from Pasteria to Tunawai planned a relay race to bring down an antelope strayed from the band, beside myself to watch, an eagle swung down from Mt. Pinos, buzzards materialized out of invisible ether, and hawks came trooping like small boys to a street fight. Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell. The hawk follows the badger, the coyote the carrion crow, and from their aerial stations the buzzards watch each other. What would be worth knowing is how much of their neighbor’s affairs the new generations learn for themselves, and how much they are taught of their elders.

The Desert
This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough. Trees grow to consummate domes; every plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly in crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders.

The Desert—
For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars…It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.

When food is scarce, women are vulnerable—
On the slope the summer growth affords seeds; up the steep the one-leafed pines, an oily nut. That was really all they could depend upon, and that only at the mercy of the little gods of frost and rain. For the rest it was cunning against cunning, caution against skill, against quacking hordes of wild-fowl in the Tulare, against pronghorn and bignhorn and deer. You can guess, however that all this warring of rifles and bowstrings, this influx of of overlording whites, had made game wilder and hunters fearful of being hunted. You can surmise also, for it was a crude time and the land was raw, that the women became in turn the game of the conquerors.

Why do people live in the desert?—
…One does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it…For one thing there is the divinest, cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in God’s world. Some day the world will understand that, and the little oases on the windy tops of hills will harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods.

 

Independence also has the disturbing distinction as one of the centers of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Manzanar is situated at the edge of the town.

The entrance is on the left. On the right,a  cemetery marker where survivors and others sometimes leave personal mementos.

My Edition:
Title: The Land of Little Rain
Author: Mary Austin
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1974, is the complete text of the first edition, 1903
Pages: 171
Full plot summary

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Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics

 

Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster (1905)

My Edition:angelstread
Title: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Author: E.M. Forster
Publisher: Dover
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 117
Full plot summary


“Remember, that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gimignano, Monteriano. And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.”

 

What a soap opera and angst-ridden tale this is and packed into only 117 pages! The above quotation turns out to be the death knell for the Herriton family. If ever a family had a bad day…or span of years, it would be them. The ruptures and tragedies that plague them, however, are surprising and come out of the blue, making the novel read like a great international mystery/adventure story.

Lilia Herriton was widowed young and left with a daughter. From the beginning of her marriage, according to her in-laws, Lilia was wild and ill-mannered. After her husband’s death, she is forced to move near her mother-in-law for the sake of young Irma. But Lilia is still full of life and finds it difficult to play the conventional role of widow. When Caroline Abbot asks Lilia to be her companion on a trip to Italy the Herritons hope the responsibility will help to quell her untamed ways.

A cable is received from Lilia that she has settled down in the town of Monteriano and is going to marry Gino, the son of a dentist. Phillip, the brother of Lilia’s husband is sent to stop it and bring her back to England. But he arrives too late as she and Gino are already married. He tells her he has come to rescue her and will break up the marriage, but Lilia is defiant and with the past injustices from his family overcoming her and she defends her actions:

For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone…For twelve years you’ve trained  me and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more. Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I never felt?..When I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over—never a kind word—and discussed me,…and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me…And when Charles died I was still to run in strings for the honour of your beastly family, and I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again.

With such passion, the reader pulls so hard for Lilia and this new life she has created far from the criticism of her family. Alas, she dies in childbirth. And while that is shocking enough, the real shocker is how badly the Herritons now feel about the way they treated her and this guilt leads them to plot to get the child away from Gino and raised as their own. Once more, Philip is dispatched to Monteriano with his sister Harriet to make a bargain with Gino. When Gino turns down the offer, Harriet steals the baby as she rushes to catch the carriage taking them to the ship to go home. But when the carriage turns over on a wet road, the baby is killed.

No one is really happy in this novel. The Herritons and Caroline Abbott are all trying to live a life that is socially acceptable as members of the middle class, no individuality allowed. Lilia, who hoped her marriage would free her from English conventional norms found herself caught in similar conventions as an Italian wife.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is Forster’s first novel. His later works are more well-known, including A Room with a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India. What drives his novels, in my opinion, is his gift for finding the vulnerable places of his characters as motives for their life choices and in the case of this novel one character’s choice from that place drives the vulnerabilities of the entire cast.

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Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

Presidents’ Day and Religious Freedom in the United States

“…a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: – deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue or language equal parts of the great Governmental Machine…” Moses Seixas to President George Washington

In 1790, George Washington responded to a letter written to him by a Jewish resident of Newport Rhode Island that has become, for many, the foundational statement on religious freedom in the United States. I believe it is particularly important at this time in our history to remember our heritage, which President Washington stated so well.

You can read the exchange between Moses Seixas and George Washington here.  And the full letter from Washington here.

If you are unfamiliar with this episode and perhaps somewhat rattled by recent events from the new administration, becoming familiar with Washington’s words may give you some optimism, because religious freedom has always been a hallmark of this country, even when we have struggled over it. And on a personal note, both sides of my family sought refuge here during terrible times in their home countries and Washington’s words have always given me trust in the process. Some excerpts:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”



“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Apparitions and Invisible Friends

“…Russia will spread its errors throughout the world, raising up wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will suffer much and various nations will be annihilated.” Our Lady of Fatima to the children at the Cova

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Lucia, Francisco, Jacinta

I watched a film on the Fatima apparitions recently called, the 13th Day. The story is about three young sheep herders in Portugal Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta, who experience a series of visions on a hillside of a beautiful woman they call, The Lady from Heaven, but who later reveals herself to be the Virgin Mary.

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Watching the miracle of the sun.

At the last appearance and with the crowd topping over 70,000 on the hillside the children ask The Lady for a visible sign so all might believe. The Lady gives a miracle: the sun spins and falls to earth, before pulling back at the last minute. You can read eyewitness accounts here.

Visitations of religious figures are part of many religions. Mary, Jesus, Hindu gurus, saints of all religions, angels and ‘higher beings’ have been appearing to people for millennia. In the rationally technological 21st century, we tend to question manifestations like this. Most are the Scully type and want to find a “logical explanation” for what they see, rather than the Mulder kind, who just “want to believe.” *

I admit I am a Mulder type. While I have not experienced a direct visitation by a well-known religious figure or any other figure for that matter, I have had enough puzzling and not quite normal experiences to make me wonder. I usually feel things rather than see them, but they make enough of an impression on me to acknowledge I am not always alone.

I personally think many of us have these experiences, but we’re not comfortable enough to speak of them in public. Even with the rise of psychic stars such as John Edward, James Van Praagh and Sylvia Browne and the proliferation of paranormal investigative cable tv shows, most of us raise our eyebrows at such visitations and would rather laugh it off to manipulation of emotions than admit to our own belief. Getting back to Fatima, critics and skeptics have given various explanations of the unusual event of the sun, including retinal distortion from sun gazing, psychological manipulation, a dust storm from the Sahara desert and a natural phenomenon called a sun dog.

It is interesting to think that most of us had imaginary friends as children, yet as adults, we expect them to be long gone. Visitations from “the other side” are as old as we are. You’d think humankind would have accepted this as normal or at least plausible by now. What holds us back from believing in our own experiences? Why do some of us try and talk ourselves out of them or come up with excuses as to why our meetings with dead people must be something else? Why can’t we just believe?

* The X-Files. Two F.B.I. agents investigate unexplained incidents. Dana Scully, medical doctor, scientist, logical. Fox Mulder, acts on emotions, wants to believe.

The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

My Edition:bronzebow
Title: The Bronze Bow
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1961
Pages: 254
Plot summary

 

“—He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.”

 

When I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond last year, Elizabeth George Speare drew me into 17th century colonial Connecticut by her attention to historical detail and engaging writing style. I would say Speare surpassed herself in The Bronze Bow set during the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. This is the story of tormented Daniel bar Jamin, a young renegade blacksmith whose hatred for the Roman occupation of his ancestral land fuels his every waking moment. Sold to an abusive blacksmith at age 13 when there wasn’t enough food for the family, he fled to the mountains above his town 5 years later and joined a group of like-minded warriors. He is now 18 and he and the other young men are restless to fight, but the leader of the group, Rosh, keeps putting them off sending them out only to raid the fields of their Jewish neighbors telling the young fighters they need to gather more men before they can take action against the Romans.

When word comes to Daniel that his grandmother is dying leaving his sister alone, he puts his warrior plans on hold and moves back into the city to take care of Leah. It has been five years since Daniel saw his sister and grandmother. When he knocks on the door Leah is cowering in a corner and he realizes at 15, she is still traumatized over the unbearable experience of watching their father die by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Daniel’s mother stayed with him on the hill and later died of exposure. Five-year old Leah escaped from a neighbor’s house and was found at the crosses for an undetermined length of time. But it was long enough to give her nightmares and a fear of all people.

The town’s blacksmith Simon, called the Zealot, tells Daniel he wants to leave his business and follow a new preacher named Jesus. He is not sure how long he will be gone, but tells Daniel he can use his shop, the tools and materials as his own and move into the house connected to it. After much persuasion and the kindness of neighbors who build her a litter, Leah is carried like a queen to her new home. Daniel attracts a wide clientele with the skills he perfected on the mountain and is able to provide good food and clothing for Leah for the first time in her life. He also begins recruiting a band of youth who are itching to fight the Romans who he hopes will strengthen Rosh’s group.

Meanwhile, Daniel has renewed a friendship with a boy he knew from school. When Joel and his sister Malthace hear about the warrior group they, too, want to fight. Boy, girl it doesn’t matter, they all want the Romans out! However, their family is moving to Capernaum and Joel is supposed to go away for rabbinical studies.

It is against this backdrop of violence and hatred that Daniel first hears Jesus speak. He is confused when Jesus addresses the crowd and talks about building the Kingdom of God, which is what he wants, but Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t seem to come with a war, so how would it get built? And Joel is confused because Jesus says things that don’t sound like a rabbi, “He practically said it was alright to eat without washing our hands. Perhaps it’s dangerous to even listen to him. And yet—.”

And yet, against everything Daniel and Joel have lived for, the righteous actions against the oppressor and the righteousness of the Law, they are at once drawn then repelled over and over by what Jesus says. The first crack in Daniel’s emotional armor comes when his friend Simon the Zealot, the former fighter for Israel has decided to give up his shop and everything else about his past life and follow Jesus. He tries to explain to Daniel what has changed, but Daniel is incensed.

“Supposed they put chains on all of you and drag you off to prison.”

“He [Jesus] says that the only chains that matter are fear and hate, because they chain our souls. If we do not hate anyone and do not fear anyone, then we are free.”

In the end, Daniel’s hate could not be sustained…

This novel is so rich in the details of 1st century daily life and Jewish ritual during the time of the Temple. Food, clothing, commerce and the different ways in which people react to the Roman occupation make this novel very realistic. Speare treats the complexity of feelings that Jesus’ words bring to the various characters with depth and honesty as they struggle to make sense of their long-held beliefs.

Speare won the 1962 Newbery Medal for The Bronze Bow, a young adult novel suitable for adults 🙂

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Classic Club, Back to the Classics, Mount TBR

 

The Wonder, Emma Donoghue (2016)

My Edition:wonder
Title: The Wonder
Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 293
Plot summary

Anna O’Donnell claims—or rather her parents claim—that she hasn’t taken food since her eleventh birthday…She simply doesn’t eat.

You mean no solids?

No sustenance of any kind…but clear water.

When I first heard about Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, it reminded me of a book I read in college called, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, by Caroline Walker Bynum. In the Middle Ages there occurred a phenomenon among young girls whereby they took their devotion to the Eucharist to the extreme, refusing all food except for the Holy Host as their only sustenance. Most were discovered to be frauds, receiving food by some form and means, however there were instances of the miraculous, the inexplicable.

The wonder of this particular story set in 1859 Ireland, is Anna O’Donnell. She has been refusing food for four months, since her 11th birthday, taking nothing but a few teaspoons of water each day. She has attracted attention from people all over the world, who come to her poor home to commune and be blessed. But there are detractors as well calling the family cheats, only in it for the money left by the visitors or the notoriety. The matter has put the honor of both village and the whole of Ireland up for debate. In order to get to the truth several townsmen form a committee to investigate Anna and the claims of her family. They decide to mount a two week, 24-hour per day watch to see if food is coming to her in any covert way.

Lib Wright is an English nurse who trained under Florence Nightengale in the Crimea, having settled at a London hospital after the war. She is sent by her Matron to Ireland for a two week assignment as a private nurse, all expenses paid, but she is not told the nature of the work. We meet her as she travels to the assignment and as she passes rundown and derelict cottages, the poor people on the road who stare at her, it brings up all she thinks is wrong with this country, that the Irish are dirty, inhospitable and superstitious. When she meets Dr, McBrearty the doctor of the town to which she will staying and he describes what she will be doing, which is essentially “just watching” and not nursing she is incensed that her training will be wasted “on a child’s whim.”

Lib is sharing the watch with Sister Michael, a nun at the local convent. Anna O’Donnell is never to be left alone, for fear some family member might stash food somewhere where a quick grab into a pocket or hidden hole in the wall or floor might harbor a bit or two of food. What Lib cannot understand upon meeting the girl for the first time is how healthy and vibrant she is. Her training does not allow for what she is seeing: that after four months of fasting the girl is animated and clear minded and except for a few physical issues, healthy. Anna engages not only with her family and neighbors, but with all the world-wide visitors. To Lib, a lapsed Anglican with a scientific mind, though Anna seems very pious and prayerful and full the fairy superstition of the Irish, she is still of this world.

However, it only takes a few days of the watch before Anna begins to deteriorate rapidly. And this then becomes the mystery Lib tries to solve: not that Anna had been fasting all these months because she was obviously not, but how she was getting food and by whom. Lib comes to understand that the watch is preventing Anna from whatever method she had been able to eat and her rapid decline is frightening. She is torn between her duty of the assignment to “just watch” and her role as a nurse. Against the rules of her placement she begins to talk to Anna about eating trying to get her to see she will die, but it is of no use. Lib takes her concerns to Anna’s parents, Dr. McBrearty and the town priest, but all are enthralled at the sanctity of the situation and believe nature, that is God, should take its course.

William Byrne, a reporter from the Irish Times who has come to the town to do a story on Anna O’Donnell, has finally gotten a glimpse of the girl and is shocked at what he sees. He is furious that Lib is allowing this to happen, but he also understands the nature of the Church’s power and the family’s commitment to it. There is only one recourse to save Anna and that is…..a spoiler.

There is so much to this story and to the people who populate it. Of course, is the utter amazement that a mother and father would allow their child to starve to death and a doctor and priest that would do nothing to prevent it. Lib becomes devoted to Anna, but crosses the nurse/patient relationship when it is revealed she is estranged from her younger sister and the secret she hides about her husband. And then there is Anna herself whose refusal to eat is as much religious as it is product of an innocent heart when Lib discovers the horrible family secret that caused Anna to abstain from food in the first place.

This book reads like a detective novel as Lib investigates, observes and processes the evidence. And the writing style has both odd and beautiful turns of phrase that fascinate me. Although I thought the ending weak, because running away is a feeble way to end a story, I was utterly caught up in the totality of the narrative. So much so that I read The Wonder in one sitting, I could not put it down!

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Challenges: Library Love, Reading All Around the World

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

My Edition:treebrooklyn
Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Publisher: The Blakiston Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1943
Pages: 376
Plot summary: Goodreads

Johnny: Anybody can ride in one of those hansom cabs, provided they got the money. So you can see what a free country we got here…In the old countries, certain people aren’t free to ride in them, even if they have the money.

Francie: Wouldn’t it be more of a free country if we could ride in them for free?

Johnny: No, because that would be Socialism and we don’t want that here.

About a year and a half ago I heard a program on NPR about the publishing industry and World War II; that publishers put out specially formatted books with thin paper and in a particular size to fit easily into the pocket of a soldier’s uniform. They published classics as well as light reading and were passed from soldier to soldier throughout the fields of battle. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the most requested titles, because it reminded the soldiers of the values they were fighting for.

The Story

It is a Saturday during the summer of 1912 when we meet 11 year-old Francie Nolan. She lives with her brother Neeley and her parents, Katie and Johnny, both born in the United States, from Austrian and Irish backgrounds respectively. They live in a third-story walk up on a street with other immigrant Irish. Johnny is a singing waiter beloved by his friends and family, but alcohol has taken over him so his work is sporadic. Katie has become the breadwinner of the family and works as a ‘janitress’ cleaning homes and offices.

Francie and Neeley are always hungry, their clothes are not thick enough to protect them from the biting cold of winter and their home is not always heated. But they themselves are breadwinners as collectors of bits and bobs that they sell to the junkmen for pennies which will buy stale bread. Saturday afternoon being the most important day of the week, the kids scheme against each other for the best deals at the storefronts where they trade their stashes of rags and bits of metal and anything they can find to sell. With that money they buy food for the family, saving a penny for a sweet or two.

The book is told through budding writer Francie as she watches and observes the people and conditions around her. The narrative is a simple one as Francie grows from an 11 year-old to 17: her father dies of alcoholism, her mother takes on more work, she reads voraciously and realizes there is more to the world than Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York; she falls in love, is jilted, she fears her brother, who likes to sing, will end up like her father; she must give up her education so her work can support her mother and brother, but the desire for education burns so hard she takes college classes at night and during the summer and is able to skip high school altogether and is accepted to a college in Michigan. Her mother remarries and the family moves out of poverty.

Through Francie, Smith writes with such detail about early 20th century Williamsburg and the crushing and demeaning poverty of its inhabitants. She writes with a meticulous hand the strategies the children employ that will get them the most for the items they have collected throughout the week: which stores will pay them the most, whether this shop owner likes girls better than their brothers or that shop owner will give more to the boys, and the pride the children feel contributing to the family bank (a can nailed to the closet floor). When Katie asks Francie to shop for food she is given instructions on what to say and how to approach the butcher, the breadmaker and so on, in order to get the best deal.

My Thoughts

Yet, the story is not just the narrative, but the characters that people Francie’s life: the teacher who at first encouraged her writing until she started writing the truth about her hard life, who then told her writing is supposed to be full of beauty; her aunt Sissy, the ‘floozie’ who married three times, had 10 children that died at birth, yet is the family member everyone turns to in times of crisis; the Jewish and German shop keepers with whom Francie deals, who can be gruff and mean to the poor children one minute only to give them something extra the next; her father Johnny who she is so close to, yet for all his patriotism about freedom, is never able free himself from his addiction; Katie, who wanted to make a different world for her children, took her mother’s advice to read from the Bible and Shakespeare,

“…every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.

And the titular tree that grows tall throughout Williamsburg like an umbrella, because “it likes poor people” has the tenacity to succeed like the human inhabitants because when it is cut down, will find a break in the cement, push through it and grow again.

The book was published in 1943 when, although the soldiers didn’t know it, was right in the middle of the war. They were not that far removed from their own immigrant past, the tales of the ‘old country’ that were still real for their parents and grandparents. So, it is fair to say that this novel is really a story of immigrant America, how each generation built it up from the succeeding one.

And which may be why the book was so heavily traded among soldiers who saw in the pages their own mother and sister who kept the family together, whose fathers worked any job they could get, a little brother they missed; the same immigrant neighbors, who regardless of their poverty, knew America could give their children freedom, the ability to determine their own destiny which set America a part from the enemies they were fighting.

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Classics Club, Mount TBR